Most Commentators Say They Are in Hell
In both the OT and NT we are told that God hated Esau even before he was born. This is typically understood by commentators as indicating that Esau was not elect to eternal life, but that he was a reprobate who is now in hell.
Concerning the expression in Rom 9:13, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated,” (God’s hatred, by the way, is a figure of speech here. Both loveand hate here refer to God’s choice. This figure of speech is sometimes called a Semitism.) John Murray says, “To suppose that the final word of differentiation in this passage is not intended to bear out the distinction between salvation and the coming short of the same is to suppose something that would make this word irrelevant to the apostle’s thesis. We are compelled, therefore, to find in this word a declaration of the sovereign counsel of God as it is concerned with the ultimate destinies of men” (Romans, vol. 2, p. 24, italics added).
Both the OT and NT presents Cain as a murderer and one “was of the wicked one.” Commentators normally see this as meaning that Cain was unregenerate and that he too is a model of how the hateful world treats Believers.
Concerning the statement in 1 John 3:11-12, “We should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother,” I. Howard Marshall writes, “John clearly has in mind [with the reference to Cain] not simply people outside the church who may persecute Christians but also people within the church whose lack of love demonstrates that they are not truly believers” (The Epistles of John, p. 190 italics added). Similarly Westcott noted, “Love among Christians is the sign of a new life (The Epistles of John, p. 111). And consequently, hatred among Christians is the sign of the absence of life.
The Evidence of Their Unregenerate Status Is Weak
Romans 9 does not say that Jacob was chosen to have everlasting life. Based on the OT, we know that Jacob was chosen to be in the line of the Messiah. Esau was not chosen to be in the line of the Messiah.
We do not know from this selection whether either or both men were regenerate. Hypothetically Jacob, the chosen one, might have been unregenerate and Esau, the one not chosen, might have been regenerate.
Other than the fact that Esau was carnally minded (e.g., he sold his birthright for a meal and he selected foreign women as his wives), we have no hint in the OT or NT that Esau was unregenerate.
Would not Isaac and Rebecca have evangelized both of their sons? If Jacob believed in the coming Messiah for eternal life, wouldn’t it be likely that his brother, Esau, would have as well?
The same is true with Cain. Surely Adam and Eve, who met with the pre-incarnate Jesus in the garden (Gen 3:8; cf. John 1:18), would have evangelized both Cain and Abel. If Abel believed, would it not be likely that his brother Cain would as well?
Indeed, the way Cain is written about in 1 John 3 suggests he is a believer, not an unbeliever. The believing readers are warned not to be like Cain. If Cain were viewed by John and his readers as an unregenerate man, this would be an odd warning since John indicated the readers were not only regenerate, but also strong in the faith (2:12-14, 20, 27). Wouldn’t the warning make more sense if a fellow saint were the one who fell?
Of course, since many commentators are convinced John was presenting Cain as a prototypical unbeliever, they assume as well that John’s readers include unbelievers. Review the comments cited above by Marshall and Westcott.
The expression “Cain…was of the wicked one” does not mean that he was unregenerate. It means that his actions were demonic. Of course, Peter, too, was of the wicked one, when he suggested that Jesus would never go to the cross. Jesus said to Peter, a regenerate man, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matt 16:23). In the Johannine epistles, to be of God is to act in a godly way and to be of the devil is to act in a devilish way. The issue is behavior, not spiritual parentage.
While We Have No Absolute Proof, the Evidence Favors Both Cain and Esau Being Regenerate
When Jacob returns after two decades away, Esau embraces him and receives him lovingly. Esau appears to understand and accept what has happened. He gives every appearance of being someone who believes the doctrine of his father, Isaac.
When God (the preincarnate Jesus) tells Cain he must be vagabond as punishment for murdering Abel, Cain pleads with Him. This sure sounds like the interaction of a believer with his Lord. Then the Lord extends mercy to Cain and puts a sign on him so that no one would kill him.
Abel and Jacob Represent Overcomers, Not Merely Believers
Failure to take Cain and Esau as examples of unfaithful believers leads people to miss what Abel and Jacob represent. They don’t represent all believers. They represent a special group of believers, those who persevere and overcome in this life.
We are to be like Abel and Jacob and live exemplary lives, ones that bring glory to our Lord. Failure to do so doesn’t prove we aren’t born again. It proves we are not yet fit to reign with Jesus in His coming kingdom.
Grace Extends Even to Carnal Believers
Let me give you a list of some people in the Bible who are commonly considered as unregenerate whom I believe most likely were born-again: King Nebuchadnezzar, King Saul, Balaam the prophet, King Agrippa, Simon Magus (Acts 8), all twelve sons of Jacob, Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim 1:20). The fact that someone was carnally minded or failed to persevere in no way proves he wasn’t born again. In some of the cases listed above, we are specifically told that they did believe. In other cases the evidence would be compelling if our theology allows for carnally-minded believers.
Make no mistake about it. If you are convinced that all true believers live exemplary lives and do not fall, then you don’t know if you are a true believer or not. And you won’t know until you die. Prior to death, it is always possible that you will fall sometime in the near or far future.
I remember what a paradigm shift it was for me when I came to view Esau and Cain and others like them as most likely being believers. I believe this occurred when I took a course in the Johannine Epistles taught by Zane Hodges around 1981. While I didn’t believe it before the class, the idea that Cain was a believer made so much sense to me once I heard it suggested and thought it through. Zane had a different way of viewing the Scriptures and it thrilled me. I had no name for his view, for it was neither Calvinism nor Arminianism.
I now consider this way of viewing people like Esau and Cain as Biblical. Believers are those who have come to faith in Jesus (or the coming Messiah for OT people) for everlasting life. That’s it. Believers are not always faithful, kind, and loving. Believers sometime do terrible things, like when David committed adultery and then had Uriah killed, or when Cain was jealous of his brother and murdered him.
I’d be surprised if Cain and Esau are not now in heaven. I expect to meet them in the kingdom.
I’m glad there’s room in Jesus’ kingdom for people who are less than perfect. For that is what I am.